Category Archives: Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur’s Hall; all roofless and wind-blown


Image of King Arthur's Hall, Cornwall

The remains of King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. The “Hall” is thought to be a Bronze Age ceremonial centre for cremation although some argue that it was a pound for animals.

Into Cornwall I climb seeking comfort from winds

Among lower levels of that lofty moor Bodmin;

Through fields richly-flanked by leaves of fair green

I come up to Blisland by blowing moor’s edge.

In that soft church I sit to regain of my senses

With its vault above me which arches twice vast

And shouts of Agincourt when its arcs were stretched

On shield-bearing angels, their wings wafting high

And sailing in joy over scenes from the centuries.

Rested, I rise onto Gringolet’s saddle

Who carries me slow up ascents to the moor

And there in the blowing wind blasting my body

And sharp-shafting showers that strike to the soul

I see that square building which bold sits in bog-land;

King Arthur’s Hall it is known in Kernow.

Yet no knight knows that place, not to my knowing,

The years have long passed that parsed of its purpose

And my uncle Arthur never nursed in that place

Ideas of adventure to alter his aims

For the season, or Christmas, or sweet holidays.

It is but a pound to pen but some sheep or maybe a place to bury

The dead.

Surrounded by gorse and granite stones

That Hall it must be said

Just now sits square in moors alone,

Its story long unread.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cornwall, English Counties, English Landscape, English myths and legends, French Battlefields, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Touring Britain, Uncategorized

Centuries of silence find their voice at Strethall in Essex


Strethall Church in Essex

Strethall Church, Essex: a lonely survivor on a windswept ridge

In wind-swept uplands, just west of Saffron Walden and north of Wendens Ambo, lies a small village once home to thane and freeman, serf and reeve and now but home to none. Strethall by name, the hall on the street, now sleeps silent as pestilence and plague have played among its stones and worms turn bodies into the dusts of time.

Yet not always was it thus and, as it was told to me so I shall tell to you: the story of a village near the Icknield Way whose proud past has slipped away among the whispering winds of these wasted fields…

The king lay at Camelot on New Year’s Day so I, in search of adventure, took le Gringalet and headed north to the Royston Ridge before passing on that ridgeway past the windmill at Great Chishill and past Chrishall again, home – as it has been related – to John de la Pole, an old friend of mine.

Here, in olden times, the road wended west to Great Chesterford if you will but now, with the passage of time, old Roman roads have long since lost their significance and Strethall is but a backwater in the book of time… You need to look hard to find it today.

But as a young knight, I remember a different place. Once, on this high peak – 400 feet above the datum is high in these parts – Strethall was a vibrant village, vehement and vocal. 

Strethall then was already an ancient settlement, in existence long before my time and serving Roman and local alike. And when I last visited the place, it still supported fields, oxen, pigs in the woodland and more sheep than I could count; notwithstanding a mill upon the ridge. Alas, nothing of this part now remains.

Talking with a friendly local, I was informed that when pestilence and plague blew around the place in the 1340s, the village suffered badly; so much so that not one household lived to tell the tale. Today, just the church – St Mary the Virgin – stands lonely on the bluff with just a few barns and a farmhouse for company.

Yet the church, despite its isolation, is eloquent in its solitude. The tower, simply constructed of flints, is bound by iron to strengthen it against the high winds which blow up in these parts. Apart from the iron straps and some later crenellations, I’d say the place is much as I remember it when William and Alwig – and later Hugh – held the lands for the abbot in 1086.

But when you enter the church, if you can scale away the accretions of the years, old stones still sing. The chancel arch is surely, in its simplicity, one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon interior arches in a small church anywhere on these islands. Primitive in execution yes, but finely worked notwithstanding.

And then there is the wonderful font, unusual and large. I recall this from a visit I made in the 1100s so I can vouch for its age too. The roof however is fairly modern; I would place it, reader, to between 1400 and 1500, trussed with cambered tie-beams and stoutly made from oak. Not perhaps one of the most magnificent of roofs but somehow fitting to this place.

Look elsewhere and you will find a thirteenth century piscina, some delightful Fifteenth Century brass work and some pews dating, I should say, to what you would call the later middle ages.

I am told by our local friend that this church was on the verge of losing its status as an independent parish in recent years but the locals from the nearby village of Catmere End (which would, it seems, be where a new resurgent community built itself after the Black Death) protested and independence was preserved.

So much so, it seems, that just this Christmas this small church, capable of holding 70 in moderate comfort was packed to bursting when nearly 130 worshippers descended on it to give grace to God at Christmas time.

Reader, should you seek solace in small things, look to Strethall for your guidance. Despite the monstrous predations of an uncaring world, people in small places can wield plenty of power.

The original owners of these lands may now have gone away. But in their spirit and in their deeds they still live on today.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Essex, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Historic towns of Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet

Castle Rising – my favourite keep in Olde England


Caslte Rising Norfolk

Castle Rising in the County of Norfolk - surely the finest keep in all the land? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

In the many years I have spent traversing this kingdom of Logres, from Camelot in the west to the depths of Staffordshire, I have always been impressed by accommodation offered to me. Whether hall house or manor, whether some lowly stable or some vast tower, I have seen them all. Yet few places stand out so much as the keeps and donjons in which it has been my pleasure to lie.

Now, of course, you will know well of my stays with lord and lady Bertilak and my meeting with the Green Knight up near the Staffordshire Roaches. And, of course, for reasons of my shame, I cannot say that my stay in their castle brings me great joy – save to say that it challenged my purity and my arrogance and is therefore worthy of remark. The best place for that castle is in my memory, befogged and dim of view – but there are others, dear reader and here I share my favourite with you, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in the County of Norfolk, England.

To my mind, there are several great houses and all of them worthy of note: The Tower of London or Windsor, both great Royal keeps; Conisborough, surely the greatest circular keep in the land; Rochester, one of the tallest; Warkworth, one of the most striking; Peveril, one of the most dramatic; Orford, one of the most ingenious; Dover, one of the most impregnable; and Middleham, one of the most solid. Yet, for me, Rising outshines them all.

Rising is a veritable palace, a fine Norman keep of c.1140 set among rolling sandlings and built within great earthworks and – indeed – dwarfed by them. From the outside, it is difficult to gauge the sheer scale of the place; from the village, the tower is scarcely visible. But press on into the bailey and thence to the inner bailey and surely one of the finest keeps in all Albion awaits.

The keep at Rising is a statement of grandeur: a home above all others and the home in my day to William of Albini, the second of his line. The keep is approached up a flight of stairs all within a forebuilding which I would describe as probably the most magnificent in all the land: exquisite arcading, ornate craftsmanship and execution of the highest quality. To enter this building is to be impressed from the moment you walk through the door.

And now, once atop the stairs within a vaulted vestibule, turn left and enter the main building itself – sadly now without its floors but in my mind I recall well the feasts of pork, ox, venison and mutton we ate there with great joy. Oh what majesty! A lofty hall, well equipped with its own private kitchen and – unique possibly – garderobes split between lords and ladies. William respected the privacy of all his guests and built for that accordingly.

But there is more. In my day, few could enter the lord’s private rooms but today you can see within theme clearly. The private garderobe, an ante-chamber, a private staircase and also the keep’s own exquisite chapel. This is a building which clutches you and warms your spirit. It was – and is – a statement of power in the landscape, and quite rightly so.

Lord William was a powerful man, with other possessions (now sadly much depleted) at New and Old Buckenham – including, at the former, a most unusual planned town with a vast motte at one end surmounted by the stump of a round donjon in the continental style. When he built his castles he built them within earthworks so vast – especially in the huge flatness of East Anglia – that they brooded on the land, surveying his territories and visible for miles.

He was nothing if not adventurous in his experimentation in building but he was also a fine huntsman and sportsman which is why, for me, Rising is so special. What is not clear to today’s visitor but which for me kindles the magic of the place, is the great Chase, or park all around it, encompassed by banks some 15 miles long. Rising was a statement within a planned landscape of feudal lordship: proud from without, proud from within.

Oh what pleasant days I had there riding with Sir William, talking about the joys of the hunt, of chivalry and of his beloved Norfolk lands! And so it is, dear reader, that I recommend this place to you if, on your travels, you venture east into Norfolk.

Little wonder that the duke of Norfolk himself in later years, writing a letter to the duke of Suffolk in 1538 took time to say that it was “written on a molehill in Rysyng Chase, 8 August, 11 o’clock”. It’s that sort of place – you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to tell your friends.

Note: until recently, Castle Rising was in the care of the State under the auspices of English Heritage. It is now managed by Lord Howard of Rising although I shall say that I have not been hunting with this gentleman. For information, visiting times and entry charges (not levied in my day but, then again, you had to know the owner personally), click this link to Castle Rising.

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A Viking’s skin nailed to a door?


Hadstock church door today

Hadstock Church door - a dark story or something less sinister?

In my travels across this land, one of the many privileges I enjoy is the ability to dip into local stories and legends – none more so than that of Hadstock in Essex.

For those unaware of North West Essex, it is surely one of the most beautiful areas in the kingdom, where small woodlands give way to delicate views over ancient field systems. Country lanes and roads wind themselves through the landscape like eels in a river and, here and there an ancient village reveals itself. One such place is Hadstock.

Today, to my sorrow, little remains of the village I once travelled through in 1411, but the imprint of it on the landscape is still much as I recall, with the church rising above the homesteads and Essex folk quietly going about their business. Yet the village also plays host to a somewhat macabre local story…

It was here, at this church, that a strange legend has grown up of a Viking who was flayed alive and his skin nailed to the door as a warning against future invasions. Indeed, this very flesh ended up in the museum at Saffron Walden, a nearby market town, where for many years it has resided in the museum there. Local legend lives on through the centuries, its tale to tell, so what is the truth of the matter?

I can now reveal, as news readers are so fond of saying, that on Saint Brice’s Day 1002 – over a thousand years ago in your time, dear reader, if not in mine – King Ethelred , fearful of an attempt to assassinate him, ordered the mass killing of Danes. I can also reveal that the door did indeed have a leather covering. Thirdly, it is also true that this door – if not the church – is the oldest in the county. The evidence certainly appears convincing. However, illogical syllogisms – and the finest local legends – oft comprise unrelated facts and so, in this case, it proves to be.

I do indeed remember this church door well from my first visit and while leather was certainly present, this was not an unusual occurrence; such material occurs on other church doors as far afield as Rochester, Copford and even Westminster Abbey. At no time in my memory did the covering look anything like the flesh of a human.

How could I, a mere knight, know such a thing? Reader, it pains me to say that in my travels through the centuries, I have seen many brutal acts – not least the disgraceful flaying alive of Bertrand de Gurdon (although someone there called him Pierre Basile) at Chalus-Chabrol following the death of Richard Coeur de Lion – and I know a flayed skin when I see one. I can, therefore, confirm that the skin on the door at Hadstock was not, and never has been, human – most likely it was that of an ox or a cow.

Of course, it is always makes good reading when a story contains gruesome details but, as a Knight of the Round Table I am duty bound to put honour and virtue above all things and  I have looked into the matter further. I can tell you that not so long ago, Alan Cooper, a DNA expert from Oxford University,  also looked into the matter further. His analysis showed that the skin was indeed that of a cow.

Sic transit gloria mundi we must say; how sad it is that the magic of such a tale can be destroyed by the cold calculation of pure science. But if only they had asked me, I could have told them anyway!

Hadstock church door interior

The interior of the church door at Hadstock. Notice the gaps which the original leather covering would have covered

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Where the Welsh princes still live on – a ride to Dolbadarn in the Llanberis Pass


Dolbadarn Caslte, Gwynedd

Dolbadarn Caslte, Gwynedd - a statement in the Welsh mountains

What is it about Wales, dear reader, that conjures in the mind the mysteries of medieaval Britain? Is it the fact that it is bound from Prestatyn to Chepstow by that great dyke of King Offa of the Saxons – sealing it off from England like a great curtain of earth across the marches? Is it the looming mountains shrowded in mists and rain which evoke a land almost beyond the land – a  true Valhalla for the scented isle of Albion? Or is it the dark secrets and stories which my old friend Geraldus Cambrensis liked to tell over the fires at night time?

Whatever the reason, Wales was – and is – a land of magical beauty, and a land where my blood still runs and where my head turns in search of the true Britain which I seek and pray for in my travels. Here, on le Gringalet, I chose to visit again the very land which perhaps defines what scholars have called the Matter of Britain and, perhaps, the ultimate legendary home of my true king, Arthur – King of the Britons.

And so it was, after much travelling, that I arrived at the halls of Dolbadarn once again. Here is a favourite place of mine – its tower standing proudly and yet minutely against the backdrop of its cold black, old black slate and grey mountains. Here the harp plays in the secret fastness of the hills. And there, a raven-headed girl flashes blue eyes at me over the fire side as she sings the stories of the Mabinogion…

The last time I was down this way, the only view of Dolbadarn I saw was through the slit of my visor. These were troubled lands in troubled times: Edward Longshanks had builded such a wall around the north of Wales that few could prize themselves from its iron grip. To the west, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Harlech and even Cricieth. To the north, Conwy, Rhuddlan and Fflint. To the east, Chirk and Builth. To the south, Aberystwyth.

The fingers of that great lord tightened stone by stone and the long days of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd – seen by many as the last true Prince of Wales – were coming to an end. At Orewen Bridge, alas, he died a lonely and somewhat ignominious death at the hands of Stephen of Frankton, a low-ranking knight (and not of my acquaintance).

But let us not dwell too harshly on those days – it repays us not to boil resentment in a cauldron long since cooked dry. Instead, let us see what still remains in majesty to look down upon the great pass of Llanberis: the great tower of Dolbadarn, built by Llewelyn Fawr, Llewelyn the Great.

In true form, of course, Dolbadarn is a classic castle of the Welsh. It is not sophisticated, indeed it is somewhat crude and yet, like many of the great English castles set within their landscape, this is a castle of statement. Unlike Ewloe, strangely hidden in the woods near Chester, Dolbadarn is unafraid.

It is a proud place and, no doubt, was built so to be. It is not built to high up the Pass, for in winter it would be inaccessible. It is not built too low, for it would be too exposed. No, it stands proudly in the centre of the Pass, visible from both ends and from the glistening Llyn Padarn below – a statement of ownership of this damp, wet and looming landscape.

In my time, I remember well this compact castle and the cluster of huts and houses around its base. Alas, like the captains and the kings, the princes and their lovers, they have long gone but the tower still remains – enough so in my mind to see it as once it was. The steps leading up to its entrance have changed but once at the entrance it still makes me smile to see provision for a portcullis. Clearly, what the Welsh may have lacked in money they made up for in craft and were still capable – as at Dinas Bran – of adding complex features to even the simplest of buildings.

I scale the steps which once led to a most exquiste bedroom but alas now only birds and insects flit around where once we sat and exchanged stories in the quietness. There is no roof now, no floors, no drapery, no plaster. Dolbadarn is but a shell and yet, and yet. Visit this place on a quiet day, ascend the steps of the tower and listen…

Listen to poetry sung in ancient Welsh. Listen to the poets’ voices as they whisper adventure, love and many things. Think now of the words of Iolo Goch as he described the castle of Sycharth, home of Owain Glyn Dwr, seen by some as the very last prince of Wales:

There are joists upon the hillside

As in a vault, side by side,

And each one, in a tight-knit

Pattern, to the next is knit

Twice nine dwellings to look up

To a wood fort on a hill top.

Next to heaven his court towers

On four marvellous pillars,

A loft tops all, built carefully,

With all four rooms for friendship

Joined as one, where minstrels sleep…

Dolbadarn, a ruin now, still sings its song to all who care to listen when they venture up the Llanberis Pass in search of beauty now instead of war. While its outer walls are but mere foundations, its tower is like a siren song for all in search of simple, yet profound, majesty.

Note: For modern travellers, the remains of Dolbadarn are now managed by Cadw. Be prepared for some steep car-parking charges (fees charged by the day to cater for hill walkers) at a large car park just below the castle. I believe the original castle car park is still open where you can park just to visit the castle itself.

SEE INSIDE DOLBADARN: Follow this link from author Owen Law who is writing his first novel: follow his links to his You Tube video of the keep’s stark interior!

 

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A northern tour to Wensley in Wensleydale


The font at Wensley, Wensleydale

New fangled things - the 17th Century font at Wensley Church, Wensleydale

In late summer when the fields are ripe and swallows with the insects soar, sit calmly on your horse dear friend and let your eyes rise forth…

Ah, late summer, when the harvest’s in, that’s the time to share in the beauties of our land. Should your horse ever take you to Wensleydale, then here too can your spirit rise. If we can ride this vast dale and just take in the land around us then we rise above the commonplace and into the world of angels. We have entered heaven: but, as you know, any Yorkshireman will tell you that…
Wensleydale is a place to go to lose awareness of the troubles of our times: wars, riots, bombs and plots. Here, among the looming hills and ever-changing cloudscapes, you can lose yourself in the sublime beauty of nature.

Of course, in times past – the times I knew well – these lands were far from safe and that is why today you can still see the ruins of the glorious Bolton castle standing proudly on the side of the dale. Not far off is that other fastness: Middleham, a house so strong a thief would need to knock to gain entry.

These lands were strangers to safety then, but no more; today they are the companion to serenity. Breathe this air dear reader and fill your lungs with the bucolic balm of old England – and let me share with you Holy Trinity Church at Wensley, a favourite haunt of mine when resting from my quests.

What can I tell you of this place? Today, it is run by a body called the Churches Conservation Trust – no doubt a sign of our times (or yours). Strangely, since last I was here, there have been new additions. The tower looks new for a start – although I am reliably told it was built in 1719 (new by my standards though). There’s also a striking font bedecked in the puritan style with letters and numbers less complex than in my day. And the Bolton family pew seems a little too modern for my taste.

But looking around I see some older fittings whose place I remember well. Behind the current family pew is a much older and more spectacular fitting, exquisitely carved from oak although sadly, dear reader, a little worse for wear today. I still see the reliquary containing the relics of Saint Agatha where once I bowed and kissed. And on the walls, some remains of the paintings which once filled me with joy and dread at the same time. Our Lord guides us as he frightens us. We are in His hands, but motes of dust on the vision of creation.

But reader, let me tell you more. When I last visited this church over 500 years ago, I remember making acquaintance with some very special friends in the choir and, to my delight, they are still here! Bors the Dragon; Jankyn the Hare; Lancelot the Lion and many more. Oh, what joys! How I used to talk to them in private moments and how they talk to me now, whispering the secrets of the centuries in my ears! They will talk to you too, if you let them.

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What a special place this is! Many years ago, long before your time, a good friend of mine lost a jewel in these lands near Middleham – a very precious golden square jewel bedecked with the names of the saints. I remember him saying to me in tears that he valued his jewel beyond price and even beyond love. Ah, what folly!

I told him then, as I tell you today, that there is greater jewellery in nature than ever could be made by man. Perhaps I was too harsh on the poor soul – today you can judge for yourself: take in the beauties of the dales and go and see a replica of his jewel in the church at Middleham.

It will be the perfect full stop on an exquisite day spent in these most beautiful lands.

Please note: many churches in Britain today are supported by the Churches Conservation Trust. These beautiful buildings are lucky to have such friends in times like these. Should you wish, you can learn more, become a member, and support the Trust here.

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The mediaeval graffiti at Anstey, Hertfordshire


Entrance to Anstey

Through the door: the ancient doorway to an older church at Anstey

Ah reader, when you point an old mare like Le Gringalet at an ancient road of the type which criss-crosses Hertfordshire, you are always sure to find a quiet surprise. And no more so than at the quiet village of Anstey in the north of the county. Well, a village now but in my time…

Sheltering below the great mound of the castle is a quite wonderful church. Here, as my anonymous friend wrote in his beautiful poem Pearl, we find something, “sette sengeley in synglere” (always one for the words, my Staffordshire friend!).  Here at Anstey, we have the silent graffiti of long lost souls.

Of course, I knew him well whose hand turned point to stone – but to inform you who inscribed these scratchings would be telling. I don’t want to get them into trouble with the priest: the last person who was caught ended up losing his hand – hardly a fitting end for a friend talking to the future! And besides, Nicolas de Anstie lost a lot more when he sided against King John so I think it’s best to keep quiet on these matters…

So instead, dear reader, I’d just like to affect an introduction to what I see as some of our scribe’s more exquisite creations… Look around and you see some treasures of my age, perhaps the finest of which are some wonderful jousting helms carved into the pillar near the centre of the church.

While these helms may be unfamiliar to you, I can recall well the merry jousters who once played for sport on the fields outside this church – royally entertained by Sir Nicolas himself.

But these shields are somewhat newer – I would say perhaps around 1300. Look closely and you see no idle scratch but the work of someone who knows what he studies: the breathing holes on the helm face, the continental crest with its horse and reins, the flowing decoration to the rear.

If I’m not mistaken, one crest resembles the ragged staff of the Earls of Warwick but without the bear: I don’t recall the knights in question but perhaps he is one of the Balliol family – a long way from home if he is!

Elsewhere, there are scallops – the sign of pilgrims – and pleas for help from Our Lady.And look further, scattered around are wagons, merchants in padded clothes, a three-legged pot – and a curious inscription near the beautiful font with its mermen. Alas, since last I was this way someone has “restored” the church and painted over this writing – it is difficult to decipher now.

But these changes succeeded in preserving the best. Yes, I know the delightful wall paintings I once knew are long gone save for a few remains, but Anstey is a special place. Reader, should you need some time for quiet reflection, come upon Anstey on a lazy day and share its cool shade. You will be richly rewarded with a mirror onto a distant age.

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